Seeing the Wood For the Trees

Blog 73 by Tan: Seeing the Wood For the Trees

The Brazzaville side of the river was a breeze in comparison to the Kinshasa side. There were nowhere near the number of police, immigration and customs people around and things were a lot less hectic. One of Boris’s E.C Air employees was already on the Brazza side waiting to help us with our paperwork. After grabbing our passports and documents he disappeared for 20 minutes or so only to emerge with papers in hand and approval for us to move on. We were on our way.

Kinshasa and Brazzaville were like night and day. Brazza’a population at just over 5 million making it positively sleepy in comparison to Kin. While we loved the energy of Kin, the calm vibes of Brazzaville were a welcome change. We were exhausted, both physically and mentally. We had been getting by in Kinshasa by the enthusiasm of our bike club mates and by the need to get things done. Now with visas in order for the road ahead, the bikes running well and our friends in Kin gone, we crashed.


The rival cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa facing off across the Congo River. One of my favourite authors on Africa Michaela wrong writes: “From Brazzaville to Kinshasa, from Kinshasa to Brazzaville, residents ping-pong irrepressibly from one to another … depending on which capital is judged more dangerous at any given moment.” Net pic.

Our plan was to stay just a couple of days in Brazzaville then get going. A little anxious about the amount of money we spent in Kinshasa we had planned to take advantage of the free camping offered to Overlanders at Hotel Hippocampe. It is not a proper campground, just a space on concrete behind the restaurant with access to showers that the owner generously offers free if you agree to eat in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant.


Sergio and Anders. Anders has a fantastic blog full of great stories and invaluable information for travellers.

However when we got there and the rain started to pour and the prospect of a night in a leaking tent got less attractive by the minute. Instead we wrangled a good deal on a room and took it. That night we slept for more than 14 hours. Our exhaustion was complete. We decided to stay another night….and each morning we decided to do the same again.

One day we finally decided to leave and bought all our bags downstairs only to bump into another Overlander, a Swedish guy named Anders travelling on an old Africa Twin. Anders had recently been reunited with his bike after 10 months of recuperation back in Sweden.  He had suffered a broken leg and knee damage in an accident on a slippery mud track in Republic of Congo not far from the Gabon border. Ander’s, with a broken leg and little options, arranged to store his motorbike and belongings in a police compound for however long it took to fix his leg and return. A cynical person might have written off his chances of having anything to return to, but in this case they would have been wrong.  The bike was exactly where he left it.  Anders is a super interesting and well-traveled guy and before we knew it we’d spent just about the whole day chatting. We lugged all our bags back to the room and spent another night.


Duct tape for the win. Our tent has served us well however the seams had started leaking on us.

It was one false start after another before we realised we’d be best served not trying to force our departure and to just leave when we felt up to it. If it took 5 days or 2 weeks for that to happen, then so be it. We were utterly travel fatigued. And the only cure for that was a bit of down time.

While at Hippocampe we saw to more bike chores. The principal concern was all the metal strewn through the motor. Mick changed his oil and cleaned the filter again and fished out more aluminium. Ridding the motor of it was going to be a slow process.


Mick giving Anders some pointers.


Another oil change and shrapnel retrieved.


And more again.

That day we made the decision move somewhere more modest so we didn’t have to worry about blowing budgets. Just as we were making a plan to do so a super cool Brazilian bloke on a Super Tenere named Sergio spotted our bikes and pulled up to say hi. Like Anders, Sergio was one heck of an adventurer. He has been doing his round the world bike travels over a long period of time and region by region. On this particular trip he had travelled from Japan, through Russia and Europe and to Congo in 4 months. Meanwhile it takes us 4 days to check out of a room. He was going at a cracking pace. It was not our style but we were impressed. Sergio told us he was staying at a simple hotel on the other side of town that had space for the bikes and was only $US16 a night. We made the move.


This bloke showed up with this stunning old Tenere.


Our new budget lodgings.

A day later Anders and Sergio moved on and crossed by boat to Kinshasa together. We found out they didn’t find the crossing too stressful but it was an 8 hour process that set them back $US250 each compared to our relatively quick, $335 for both bikes crossing. Making us grateful once more for the help of the Kinshasa bikers.

After spending several more days taking it easy and hitting Brazzaville’s Lebanese restaurants and fantastic patisseries, we were well fed, well rested and ready to move.  Unfortunately however, we had not planned on fuel shortage in the capital. We were told it was a reasonably frequent occurrence for this oil-producing nation. Lines at service stations were so long that cars were spilling into the streets blocking traffic all over town. The police had been called in to supervise the mayhem. One of the coppers must have felt sorry for us waiting in the sun in all the bike gear and waved us in, allowing us to skip the long queue, fuel up and hit the road.


La Mandarine became our second home. It is a Lebanese run French patisserie that knocked my socks off. It was hard to leave. Net pic.


The Basilique Sainte-Anne stands out in a city of few grand structures.

The slow start and roadworks on the way out of the town meant we covered just 150km for the day. It was our first day of riding in Republic of Congo so we had yet to familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land. What our 150km did show us was that the place was a lot less densely populated than we were used to. We were travelling north on a new, lesser-used highway. We were out in the sticks and could see little in the way of accommodation. Even camping didn’t look promising as we rode past mile after mile of tall grassland with deep concrete culverts separating us from subpar but do-in-a-pinch camping locations.


Long lines for fuel had us leaving town late….or should I say later that usual.

We reached a small village at sun down and tried to find a guesthouse. Soon it was dark and we were still searching for somewhere to lay our heads; a first for the trip. Our almost non-existent command of the French language wasn’t helping matters. Eventually a nice car pulled up nearby with a Chinese guy inside, no doubt working on the huge construction project we had passed earlier in the day. He spoke no English so we used Mandarin to communicate our need to find a place to sleep. He spoke French to his local driver who then spoke the local language to someone else.  They confirmed there was no guesthouse in the village but found someone to take us to a local priest who might be able to help.


The church in the light of day.


The bikes sanctuary for the night.

We were led by car far off the main road, though a dozen small plots of land past tiny huts made of corrugated iron. Eventually we came upon a big building of corrugated iron. The young priest came out and said we could park the bikes in the church and spend the night in a spare room of the church housing block. It was such incredible luck we’d come upon this place. And if things couldn’t get any better, the room had power and the fan stayed on all night. The next morning we thanked the priest for putting us up and left him with a donation to the church.


Saying goodbye to the priest.


The translator and the Chinese road inspector. The Chinese bloke kindly informed us we were “so cool”.

After saying our goodbyes we headed back to the village to fuel up. While we were there another Chinese construction company vehicle showed up. A young Chinese guy spied our bikes and came out with his translator to say hello. So there we were, a Chinese, a Congolese and an Aussie chatting away in Mandarin in the middle of Congo. The translator told me how he had spent 7 years studying in China on a Chinese government scholarship. His Chinese was excellent. The Chinese guy was from Inner Mongolia and was on his first short trip to Africa and seemed to be stunned by the experience. He was there to inspect the road however construction work hadn’t started due to government delays. Both guys voiced their frustration at the government’s inefficiency and demands.


Plenty of scenes like this on the road north.


And plenty of empty road.

Not long afterward another car showed up with more Chinese speakers inside. These fellows were Malaysian Chinese and once more we got chatting. I asked them if they knew which towns might have accommodation on the way north. We were keen avoid another nighttime scramble for a bed. They gave us some recommendations and then told us that we should stay with them that night at their plantation. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we arrived in Marquoa and that he would give us directions to the plantation from there. It seemed too interesting an invite to pass up.


A typical roadside lunch. Central and West Africa is all about the Laughing Cow – a dull yellow goo that claimed some relationship to cheese.


No complaints about the fruit though.


Mick waiting while I hunt down a pineapple.

We had a simple ride up pristine tar with little in the way of towns along the route. As the day wore on we experienced a very rare sensation of getting rained upon. So far, in almost a year and a half of riding in Africa, we had been rained on less than a handful of times. With the storm clouds brewing we had to rack our brains to recall where we had stored our wet weather gear.

While we were searching through bags the heavens opened with a fierce though short-lived downpour. Unfortunately for Mick he discovered that his Jackson Racing WON-Z (which cost an arm and a leg) had a failed zipper. He’d only used it a handful of times so that was disappointing and inconvenient in that moment.


The colour.


Target acquired.


Buying baguettes lathered in nutella type spread.


Ready to roll.

It was poor timing with the wet season threatening us. And the product warranty did us little good in the middle of the Congo. It would have cost a small fortune (probably exceeding the value of the suit) to pay to courier the suit home and back to Africa and pay what would no doubt be ridiculous import taxes on the goods. A big part of the reason that Mick splurged on the suit was to minimise the chances of gear failure during the trip. “No chance of that happening if we purchase top of the line products, right?” This is a myth and we can’t quite believe we fell for it with a fair bit of the gear we purchased. And here we were carting a rain suit with a broken zip worth very near to the per capita GDP of Republic of Congo. You live you learn.


Not exactly waterproof.


After passing nothing but grassland and scarcely a single vehicle we came across a huge airport. We were confused who the airport serviced until we saw this huge 5 star hotel in the middle of nowhere. We knew it could only mean one thing. We had to be in the hometown of the President and this was his hotel. Apparently we were right.

Just outside of Marquoa we were met with an utterly bizarre sight. After hours of riding past nothing but grassland, swamp or forest, we came across a near to full-scale replica of the White House. After confirming that Michael could also see a giant copy of the White House we started to ponder why it was here. It didn’t take long to agree that it was most likely the ridiculous personal vanity project of one of the richest people in the country, who is no doubt a public servant. Sure enough when we asked about it someone told us it was the house of the Republic of Congo Treasurer ,who by the looks of things, might be dodgier than a week old curry. We didn’t want to get spotted taking photos of the place so just shock our heads and rode on.

We were set to arrive at the plantation on sundown however we weren’t counting on hitting a road block ….and being kept there. The Gendarme in charge was a proper jerk to us. Being at the end of the day and pitch black we just weren’t in the mood for this.

He went straight into the stern, rude Mr hardarse mode we had become so familiar with in Central Africa. We were less than a kilometre from the plantation, tired and hungry and without the energy or patience to deal with an aggressive shakedown. Perhaps he sensed that so went in hard.


More views on the empty road north.

After taking our international drivers permit he demanded our insurance. We didn’t want to take out all our documents so tried to blow him off, distract and ignore him so that he’d get tired of us and let us get on the bikes and go. This was generally a successful tactic but was not that night. We explained that we were tourists and going to visit our friends at the plantation and needed to go. We were to discover that admitting to any association with the company guaranteed a hearty extortion attempt. It was no coincidence they were set up so close to the plantation gates.


Approaching sundown and still 70km to go.

He came up of his office with a fine of 10,000CFA (US16.70) each for us not having insurance. We did have insurance (ok it was fraudulent but convincing insurance) but he said too bad I’ve written the fine you have to pay or I am not giving your licenses back. Both of us lost our temper pretty good and proper. And in what can only be described as a bad move, Mick took the fine, scrunched it up and threw in on the ground. Yep. We went feral. The Gendarme, rather predictably, did not like this.

Meanwhile our Malaysian friends showed up looking for us. I am guessing they had figured we were stuck at the roadblock having our pound of flesh extracted. Qian cooled off the situation and we paid the money as any further resistance would have been felt by the fellas at the plantation.


Early morning over the plantation.


The plantation slowly coming to life.

At the plantation Qian, the manager, already had dinner there waiting for us that he had cooked himself. All the foreign workers cooked for themselves as this was no cushy expat job for them. We chatted for a while and learned that the roadblock arrived soon after they did. Despite being residents of the Republic of Congo they are made to pay between $US5-10 for every non-Congolese in the vehicle that passes the checkpoint, no matter how far they intend to travel and no matter that it is a public road. The plantation had become a cash cow for these guys and they never missed and opportunity. We didn’t stay talking for too long as the guys get up at sunrise to start work. They showed us to our cabin for the night and we were soon in bed.


The surrounds.


The plantation camp.

We woke up before sunrise. Despite the comfort of our simple lodgings I slept poorly due to nightmares and being angry at the Gendarme from last night. Our time in Brazzaville was supposed to have relaxed and soothed us after some intense weeks. But there we were exercising the patience of a three year old when pressed. The copper was so intense and mafia-esque compared to what we had experienced thus far in Africa, even in DRC. They were fat cats used to getting their cream. And while that was unpleasant the more worrying matter was that we had both handled the confrontation poorly…like really poorly. We can’t be making a habit of such failures in judgment and control. We resolved to keep our shit together.


Some of the plantation gear.


The camp mess.

We went to the mess for breakfast and chatted away the morning with some of the Malaysian and Pilipino workers. These guys were mostly mechanics and heavy machinery operators. They told us about their lives there and we were struck once more by the hardworking and isolated existence of these guys. They work every day for 11 months then they get one month a year off which they spend back in their home countries. They cook for themselves, have cold showers for 11 months of the year, and have very unreliable internet access for keeping in touch with family. It is not all that surprising then that they were happy to have us at the camp as we represented a bit of a change from the norm.


The workshop.


Mick setting up shop.


Mick fashioning a makeshift gasket out of old exhaust tape to make his leaking exhaust a bit less obnoxious.


Mick informs me this t-shirt is perfectly fine.

The guys gave Mick the go ahead to use their workshop to try once more to rid the engine of excess aluminium in the oil. Mick’s bike had been running at about 128 degrees even at 90km/h which was about 30 degree off normal. This time Mick wanted to flush out the oil cooler with petrol and compressed air. It worked well and he managed to dislodge a good amount of aluminium. Once all back together the bike appeared to be running closer to its normal temperature range.


Time for another flushing.


Did you know Mick played the oil cooler in his high school band?


The compressor was effective.


Glitter!

The plantation fellas invited us to have lunch with them and suggested we stay another night so that we had time to do a tour of the plantation. We didn’t want to pass up seeing more of the place so happily agreed.


Lunch with one of the Pilipino guys and Mr Wong.

Mr Wong, one of the operators at the timber plantation, took us for a tour the next day. It was a huge operation but was completely empty. We toured both the palm oil plantation and timber yard without seeing a single person…let alone a single person working. It was a bizarre sight but very much the norm according to the foreign workers who said though the locals workers are paid for an 8 hour shift they generally only worked 2-3 hours per day. But today was payday. And they won’t work on payday.


The oil palm plantation.


Seeing my first ever oil palm up close. Mr Wong told us that there were many gorillas in the area. The gorillas come from the forest to eat the palm oil fruits from time to time. I asked what they did when the came down and he said they have to chase them away. “You can’t hurt them, it is forbidden and you will go to jail.” He also said they have seen elephants on the site as well.

The Malaysian guys were frustrated and said they couldn’t understand the local workers refusal to do their 8 hours shifts. They said how they were paid above the government mandated minimum wage and that there were no other jobs in this extremely poor area. These guys were of the mind the locals should be glad for work and income for themselves and their families. The complex attitude to work by Africans under foreign employ was out of their comprehension. The “work hard to get ahead” mentality hasn’t always held true throughout Africa’s history. They asked us somewhat rhetorically “can’t they see that they are destroying the project? Can’t they see that we will close down and there will be nothing for anyone here if they don’t work?”

Qian told us that the Indonesian and Malaysian plantations, an average plantation worker can transplant 120 palm plants a day. On this plantation the workers only do about 40. In the past they say they have tried to push the employees to do 50 transplants a day but they were met with such fierce opposition, often resulting in the workers walking off the job for days. Anyone who wanted to work or do more transplants that the others tended to get hassled or beaten up according to our potentially biased new friends. But this I suppose is not too dissimilar from unions of old in various parts of the world.


Palm oil fruit of the African palm oil tree. You wont go a day in you modern life without using or eating something derived from it. There are over 200 names for palm oil derived ingredients so no wonder we don’t know we are using it.


The food industry is responsible for 72% worldwide usage of palm oil. Personal care and cleaning products account for 18% of usage, with biofuel and feedstock taking up the last 10%.

Either way, at one third the expected productivity and in the face of incessant corruption and significant sovereign risk, it was obvious the economics of the project must be ‘all up the shit’ for lack of better phrasing. The project was far behind schedule and bleeding money.

Palm oil plantations are capital and labour intensive at the early stages. Apart from money from the selling of timber, no money comes through the door until palm oil trees reach maturity which takes between 4 and 7 years. Even then harvests are modest until they reach full maturity at about 15 years. To save money the modest contingent of foreign staff from the Philippines and Malaysia had recently been cut back by almost a dozen. I can’t recall how many foreign staff there were but it seemed less than 20.


Mick clearly not worrying about snakes.


Look closely and you might be able to see the palm oil trees beneath the weeds.

We weren’t surprised to hear they were under significant financial strain. Qian told us just this one plantation was $US40 million in the hole and things weren’t looking good. This presents a real chance of the company abandoning the operation, leaving the area potentially in a worse off situation, rendering all the destruction all for nothing. The company’s infrastructure, quite literally paving the way for even worse destruction at their departure from uncontrolled logging, hunting, wildlife trafficking, mining and land speculation from any and all and sundry.


A nursery.


More mature trees awaiting transplant.

The plantation was approaching the time for their first harvest and it seemed the fate of the entire project was hanging on it. Qian was worried about having enough staff to do the necessary work given the short working days. They seemed at a bit of a loss of how to deal with it all and acknowledged their workers had the upper hand. It was a similar story with the government officials, inspectors, police and gendarmes who would show up looking for cash. If the company wasn’t forthcoming they would threaten to issue fines, order workers to stop work for days or shut down operations. Apparently Christmas day at the plantation would see a precession of officials, government workers, the police and gendarme showed up for their Christmas gifts. The plantation mangers feel they have zero choice in the matter. Corruption is corrupting.


The old and the new.


Not all trees are created equal.

We first inspected the palm oil groves and were surprised to see how nearly completely overgrown they were. In some sections you could scarcely even see the trees for the weeds. My Wong was so disappointed at their state head shake and look at his feet anytime he looked at them.


The timber industry in the Republic of Congo is mainly geared towards the export of logs though the government is trying to encourage secondary processing to see greater economic benefits to the country. It has legislated that 85% of timber exported needs to be processed in country. Hence this timber mill.


I’ve read that this company has been pinged by inspectors for mislabeling logs for export. I’d guess they may have been re-using trunk IDs to get more than their 15% of logs exported and/or avoiding royalties.

We then moved on to the timber harvesting part of the operation. We saw first hand the sad and sobering consequence of the veracious consumption practices that has ensnared the cashed up parts of the planet. Intellectually I knew of such destruction, but that was sitting at home, not standing at ground zero in the Congo forest. And knowing isn’t seeing and feeling. We did both while standing at the junction of beautiful lush forest and the ugly palm groves that have replaced it. It is only the most heartless among us that could be without emotion to be in a place like this, touching the trunk of a tree as wide as you are tall, stamped and ready for export.


Some of the smaller logs.


In 2015, 57% of Congo’s timber and wood product exported to China. But at least a third of what China imports ultimately gets exported to the rest of the world.


Raw logs like these ones are the least economically beneficial way for developing countries to exploit their timber resources. They provide less royalties, employment and industrial development but greater profits to foreign timber companies and the manufactures they provide for.


I don’t know the stats for Congo but as an example a cubic meter of the valuable hardwood timber from West Papua yields only about $11 to local communities but around $240 when delivered as raw logs to wood-products manufacturers in China. And that’s before further value added through secondary processing.

After leaving the plantation we did some reading up on the project. The company is criticised and for its secrecy, their proximity to national parks, their use of offshore tax havens and shadowy ownership, where two of the major investors are not known. However it was mentioned to us that the project owners were a huge Malaysian company that owned shopping malls. Conservationists claim that the palm oil plantation is just a cover and that their intention was only ever to log forests and trade timber. This was certainly not the impression we got.


If a tree falls in the Congo forest, and no one hears it, did it still get turn into shitty, flat pack furniture?


This was a monster of a tree. Freshly felled it still looked so alive.


Not sure what this wood is destined for. Possibly high value timber flooring.

According to these guys they don’t do well at all off the sale of timber and actually often run at a loss. I’m inclined to believe them. Qian told us the transport is what wipes out all their profit margin. The port of Pointe Noire is located in the far southwest of the country. The main timber zones in Congo are in the south and the north. Timber from the south is generally transported by a combination of river and road to Pointe Noire, while timber from the north is generally transported to Douala in Cameroon. I don’t know why but these guys could not transport to Cameroon. They were left having to truck all the way from the north to Pointe Noire in the southwest route about 1100km away. They told us that each truck was forced to pay at least $US300 worth of bribes each leg of the trip. The timber side of the business seemed a troublesome disappointment as things stood. They were all about the palm oil.


It was a somber visit, like visiting a cemetery. Suffice as to say I will never approach the purchase of a wood item lightly again.


Mr Wong’s tool of the trade. He told us his is a very dangerous job. I’d believe it.


More remnants of big trees logged.

We were a little worried about peoples’ perceptions of our visit to the palm oil and timber plantation. The guys there were kind and generous to us outsiders and we hated the thought that people would read this blog and see their pictures and think ill of them.


Contemplating the world.


I’d acquired a loyal fan club amongst the plantation dogs.


My favourite of the lot. I named her Pikelet.


The tower was for getting phone signal.


The camp from on high.


Plantation views.

The fellas at the plantations aren’t villains and I would argue they bear less responsibly for devastation wrought than the average middle class family from anywhere in the developed world, burning through resources like it was going out of fashion; a new renovation here, an update of the perfectly functional furniture there an “oooh this laundry detergent is so much cheaper than the rest.” The main reason for the prolific use of palm oil is that it is the cheapest form of vegetable oil, which allows for the price cuts we so crave and the profit margins manufacturers and retailers demand. It is all a part of the high cost of a low price culture that stimulates consumption.


Getting sorted.


Breakfast and cat petting.

When we returned to the camp we saw the workers in high spirits and all lined up, waiting to get paid. Payments were made one-by-one and involved a great deal of arguing according to Qian. He said almost everyone argues about their overtime and holiday pay (even expecting it if they took all their holidays already). It is obviously an exhausting process through which Qian had become an expert peacemaker.

As the afternoon wore on things got noisier and the music got louder, the booze flowed and the salaries were spent. Later we heard enthusiastic partying and then rowdiness and fighting. We found out the next day that the cops came to break up some trouble…and to ask for money. It was a sad but not unfamiliar state of affairs that was repeated at the plantation every month.


Our host Qian who thought nothing of inviting two bikers to stay after a 2-minute chat.

The next morning we had breakfast, got packed and said our goodbyes to the guys. It had been an interesting experience and well worth the two day foray. However it was now time to focus and actually get some distance under the tyres. Before leaving Brazzaville we did something quite out of the ordinary and actually checked the calendar. After confirming what month it was we did some calculations and realised we needed to get our backsides into gear if we were going to get through West Africa and make it to Europe with enough to rebuild the bike motors and hit Central Asia, the Stans, Mongolia and Russia at the right time of year.


Qian and Mr Wong bidding us farewell.

Our plan of making swift progress towards Europe had been immediately derailed by the plantation visit. But we would surely not allow ourselves to be sidetracked again we thought………..and then we met Jack. Schedules were abandoned. Adventures ensued.

4 Comments on “Seeing the Wood For the Trees

  1. Mick seems to be a pro Oil Cooler player.:D
    Sad to see forest plundered like that. We got a bit of it here in Ecuador the last week.

    Thanks for sharing it as always an entertaining read!

  2. Fantastic – another roller coaster ride! My family looked somberly at the trees. Thank you for another great post!

  3. Amazing Tan & Mick,

    Top effort & well written Tan, I enjoyed the read while sitting here on my helinox chair, having a beer looking over Beadon Bay in Onslow, WA. Back on our own bikes tomorrow for what will be an easy ride compared to you epic adventure. Thanks for sharing.

    Will.

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